Understanding vanilla product labels can certainly get complicated as new products flood the market and old products get rebranded. There are actually five different types of liquid vanilla in the marketplace right now and we’re not talking five different species here. We’re talking labels and what’s inside the bottles.
As I get asked about the difference between pure, flavor, natural, and imitation vanilla frequently, I decided to write an article specifically addressing what’s in the bottle and why it’s labeled the way it is.
For those looking for a cheap substitute to the real thing because it’s so expensive right now, this is also good to know.
We’ll start with pure vanilla extract.
What Makes Pure Vanilla Extract Pure?
There is a Standard of Identity for vanilla extract in the United States. To be labeled Pure Vanilla Extract, a gallon measure must contain 13.35% vanilla bean extractives (10-ounces of moisture-free solids), 35% alcohol, and the balance in distilled water.
What is not listed in the Standard of Identity is sugar, corn syrup, caramel color or any other additives pure vanilla may contain.
Some companies include one or more of these ingredients on their labels, but most do not – even though their pure vanilla contains it. The same is true with alcohol. Grain alcohol is the most commonly used alcohol in vanilla, but sugarcane alcohol is also used. Sugar or corn syrup are often used to mask the harsh notes of alcohol or to make the extract smell and taste better if the quality of the beans used were not good quality.
For an update on the 2016 vanilla shortage, please see “Why is Vanilla so Expensive?“
Have you noticed that vanilla prices have been creeping up for the last two years?
Well, now the price of vanilla has gone through the roof!
Frustrating? You bet, especially as we enter the autumn baking season and the holidays.
So why are the prices climbing and where can you find cheap vanilla? It turns out the answer is complicated.
Think shortage – One cyclone can wipe out a third of the year’s vanilla crop overnight!
Nearly everything we purchase is priced according to supply and demand, and this is especially true with food. Whereas clothing, washing machines, cars and other man-made goods typically are pretty consistently available, agricultural products are subject to weather patterns, pests, pathogens and even human manipulation.
Because we live in a global economy, if there’s a wheat shortage due to bad weather in our Midwest, our government can buy wheat from another country. Prices will go up, but bakeries won’t shut down and flour will still be on market shelves. The same is true with last year’s egg shortage. Avian Flu decimated many commercial egg producing facilities but only in some regions. We could still find eggs at the market, but we paid dearly for them. Now, almost a year later, there is a glut of eggs again.
Who doesn’t love the divine, inimitable flavor of pure vanilla ice cream? While it goes with everything – pies, cakes, tarts, cobblers and more – it’s perfect just by itself or with so many other possibilities such as a lovely caramel or fudge sauce. Yummm!
Unfortunately, finding pure vanilla ice cream in the marketplace is a big challenge. Ever since the beginning of the 21st century there have been high-end pure vanilla substitutes called Natural Flavors. These substitutes are made with vanillin from plant sources other than vanilla beans. While they may smell and taste a lot like pure vanilla, natural vanillin, found in many plants besides vanilla, only contains part of the flavor profile of pure vanilla. So while they are a reasonable substitute, if you want to make certain that the vanilla ice cream you eat is made with pure vanilla and has all the amazing flavor notes contained in pure vanilla, purchase small-batch, artisan vanilla ice cream. Or, make your own.